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Guests in Their Own House: Women at Vatican II


At the recent London meeting, “Stand up for Vatican II”, one of the three presentations was by Myra Poole, snd.  This has just become available on-line, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and reflect for a second time on a talk I found refreshing and stimulating when I heard it live the first time. I produce below a selection of her key points, followed by my commentary.

Vatican II was a ‘pastoral and ecumenical Council’ in the nineteen sixties, and its ideas were revolutionary for its time.  John XXIII himself said he had no idea so much dust had gathered on the ‘see of Rome’ and described the Church of that time as being covered with barnacles that needed to be scraped off. It had been in dry dock too long and required  to be re- fitted out  for the high seas.  …John XXIII became so frustrated with those still in the  ‘strait-jacket of Vatican I’ that he called to the Council,  Jean Guitton  (a well known French philosopher)  ‘to cast a ray of sunshine across the Council’ (33) by his presence and thoughts. A breakthrough was made on the 400 year old clerical image of the church. Small numbers of the male laity (29, among 3000+) were to be called to the second session.

John XXIII laid the groundwork for a pastoral Council and issued Pacem In Terris (1963) before his untimely death in stating, ‘those who know they have they have rights must claim them’ (36:17). Paul VI went against considerable opposition, especially from Italian Bishops, in his decision to include women auditors in the Council…… Cardinal Suenens broke the silence of the Council and disturbed many with his explosive words ‘Women too should be invited as auditors: unless I am mistaken, they make up half the human race’. Yves Congar,  French  theologian and author of Lay People in the Church and Archbishop Hurley were also great supporters but they too learnt from these women when they initially said ‘they  were the flowers in the church’.

The women were ready for the Council. They were well read, had travelled widely, more widely  than many Bishops, and wanted greater involvement with the Church. All were either Presidents of International organisations or Heads of their Religious Congregations. Many had attended the Preparatory Commissions before the Council. When women auditors were invited to the third session  in 1964, the Carmelite Donal Lamont declared ‘it was like spring coming to the Arctic’.  Women now emerged ‘ from the fog of clerical blindness’ (19 )[1].  Lamont noticed however that some Bishops and clergy  ‘jump ship when things begin to change because they think things are falling apart’. Many of the women were well known to Paul VI, such as Rosemary Goldie (Australian), whom he called, ‘a co-worker’ as she had spent considerable time in Rome as a lecturer at the Lateran University and at Regina Mundi. Another was Constatina  Baldinucci, a foundress of a Milanese congregation, who was a personal friend of his.

The lay men auditors (30) and most of the peritus worked well with the women. The women acted as equal partners with the men except in one regard – the women auditors were never allowed to speak at the Council. They were to be hearers of the word only. In contrast Pat Keegan, a leading layman, presented the Decree on the Laity on the Council floor during the third session, even though Marie-Louise Monnet, a French auditor, was responsible for a large input into that document. In contrast to some laymen Cardinal Felici, who had the overall responsibility for the oversight of all proceedings of the Council, was known as a ‘woman hater’. He never acknowledged their presence and never spoke to any of them. Other Bishops did likewise and a few even covered their eyes.

Gladys Parentelli, 32 years of age,summed up the Council as she had experienced it as a woman: ‘Fundamentally, I hoped that Vatican II would orientate itself toward an opening to the world, that the church would “open itself to the signs of the times,  that it would go along with the life of the more active and progressive Christians, that it would give a greater participation to the laity in all the structures of the church, that woman would be considered  a  member with full rights in the church, that the hierarchy would be less authoritarian, that the church would have an organisational charter that was more democratic and less hierarchical. To the contrary, the current Roman Curia is the most authoritarian, dogmatic, inhuman, and hard-hearted that the church has had in this century’ (248).

Some of the women, Marie- Louise Monnet (France), Rosemary Goldie (Australia), Pilar Bellosillo, Jose and Luz Alvarey- Incazas, spoke at meetings with Bishops outside the Council and to women journalists, in particular Betsy Hollants (Belgium). Hospitality was a particular way that these women gained influence over the Council. All had open houses for Bishops and seminarians.  By the end of the Council over 1,000 Bishops had shared their hospitality . In this relaxed atmosphere all got to know each other better and conversation flowed freely.

Other better known women attended the Council in a specific capacity but were not there as auditors notably,the famous economist  Barbara Ward whose paper on world hunger and poverty had to be read by a man, James Norris.  Others were  Dorothy Day, well known for her  Worker’s Movement, Eileen Egan, of the Peace Movement, who hoped the council would ban nuclear weapons, just as the Second Lateran Council , 1139, had banned the crossbow,  and Patricia Crowley of Chicago, an authority on birth control.

Father Bernard Häring, nicknamed ‘Häring the daring ’, the well known German moral theologian,  risked his reputation and single handily invited women onto the subcommisions of the Council, especially Gaudium et Spes, the Decree on the Laity and their input on birth control. Two prominent women auditors, Pilar Bellosillo and Rosemary Goldie , again insisted that women should  play a full part and be listened to and respected as equals.  In the end a female and a male auditor were included in every subcommission, along with larger groups of Bishops and Peritus.

The question of birth control was very much alive throughout the Council.  Patricia Crowley from Chicago was called with her husband to be a part of the Commission on birth control.  (On  another commission) Luz Marie played a notable part in changing the attitudes of Bishops, at the Council, on the question of birth control as part of her contribution on the subcommission of  Gaudium et Spes.  The majority of Bishops viewed sex as a result of concupiscence and sin and not as an act of love. She herself had 14 children, all born in love, and she addressed the Bishops in the subcommission: ‘I tell you when your mothers conceived you it was also an act of love’.  When her Spanish words were translated, the Bishops first looked wide-eyed and then turned red and then they laughed. Their response was ‘We never thought of that ; you have spoken the truth’ (McEnroy 144).

A Canadian Bishop remarked that G&S was the only document not conceived in the original sin of clericalism  and it is also the only document based on the theology of induction – experience. The presence of women in this commission meant that their influence was more extensive, especially in Section 29 G&S, ‘every type of discrimination , whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language of religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent’  McEnroy’s italics (150) The same imperative is found in LG 32, establishing the equality and dignity of all human beings: ‘Hence there is in Christ no inequality … there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus’ ( Galatians: 3:28).

The Canadian Bishops as a group were, in my opinion, the most ardent and reforming group of Bishops. Their preparation had included opening discussions within ten Canadian Dioceses  on the need for change in many areas of the church’s life, including the position of women.  It was these Bishops who advocated women priests in the early 1970s and it nearly got through until the earlier reforming Paul VI was overtaken by pressure and fear, as he had done over Humanae Vitae, 1968, now considered a footnote of history. The result of these discussions, which no women attended, ended in 1976 with  Inter Insigniories stating women could never be priests because they were not ‘icons’ of Christ. Only males could image Christ by reason of their physical sexuality. This is theology based on biology not on the whole giftedness  of the person or the call of the Spirit.

Some of the men who attended the council acknowledged how the presence of the women had changed their understanding the position of women in the church. Among the most eminent were  Karl Rahner SJ and the Canadian theologian Gregory Baum. Abbot Bishop Butler OSB, the outstanding British theologian at the Council, in his thought reflects the influence of the laity of which they were an important part.  Before his death in 1986 Butler issued a dire warning if collegiality and the spirit of Vatican was not implemented. He feared the Church’s destiny could be like that of the coelacanth – a last remaining fossil of an extinct South African fish (www.vatican2.org/3aboutButler/voicefor.htm) .

The women’s gains were few, in spite of all their work, but they were a formidable presence, at the Council and were pioneers and role models to women of their time and beyond. However, the great legacy of the council for women and some men, was a greater awareness of the deep-seated patriarchy that had taken root in the Church over many generations. This growing consciousness, in all cultures of society can never be put back into a bottle the genie is out. Change is now, in time, inevitable. This consciousness emerged in the birth of a new branch of inductive academic theology — Feminist Theology.  In the first instance by Mary Daly, in her book released straight after the council,  The Church and the Second Sex (1967).

This academic discipline has now spread to every part of the globe. Women are writing their own theology and understanding of scripture, according to their cultural circumstances. A new concept of church and being a Christian is being formed under the crust of the old.  The ‘patriarchal’ church is being challenged at its roots, hence the many audits against theologians, male and female, and the reform groups that have arisen out of this new understanding.  An even greater challenge is given to the laity today – the reform of the very institution it has helped to build by being complicit, often unknowingly, with its sinful elements and theological fault-line on women.  More and more people are calling out for the de-clericalisation of the church, especially as a result of the muddled handling and the silencing of the paedophilia crisis in the church. The time for deep change is approaching and it will be painful for all as the laity and non- clericalised clergy  give birth to a more Christ -like and mature church by developing the understanding of its doctrines, teachings and morality in a new age. ‘Caritas Christi Urget Nos’, the love of Christ impels us forward.



One Response

  1. Thanks – very interesting.

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